Community Development as Freedom?

Development can be seen as a process of expanding real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development such as… growth of gross national product, or the rise in personal incomes…The overarching objective…is to [maximize people’s] capabilities to lead the kind of lives they value.
— Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom.

For three decades, many community development corporations have focused on “neighborhood improvement.” Communities that were burned out in the 1970s now feature safe streets, decent housing, and vibrant retail activity no one would have dreamed of a few years ago. These are accomplishments to celebrate. People of all incomes want high-quality communities.

Unfortunately, CDCs have often been more successful at improving neighborhoods than at enabling families to escape poverty. However, at the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) in Brooklyn, we believe that community development cannot only make our neighborhoods better, but can advance social and economic justice in them by combining development with grassroots organizing to build power and to make change.

Community development practitioners can learn from Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s thinking about international development. Sen counters the “Washington consensus” that poor nations should aim to boost gross national product through deregulation and privatization. While conventional economic growth may bring money into a country, the wealth generally winds up in the pockets of a few. At the same time, the shrinking public sector often leaves poor people with even less than they had before growth. Sen argues instead for “development as freedom,” which looks at how wealth is distributed, at how the life chances of the disenfranchised are increased. With our neighborhoods improving so much more than the developing world, we can – and must – ask these questions as well.

Attaining these more ambitious goals will require many of the tools that Hope Community emphasizes – social entrepreneurship, good business sense and mixed-income development. I hope the next generation of CDCs will use these tools not only for community improvement, but also to help people increase their life chances, address issues of inequality and work for broader social change through organizing.

Helping Current Residents Benefit

We agree about the goal of creating a strong, diverse neighborhood, where people of varied incomes share good schools, safety and shopping. We too have worked for years to make our neighborhood better. But surely we are obligated to insure that rising rents – created in part by our own work – don’t push our neighbors out just as the neighborhood improves. The logic of the real estate market works against stable, mixed-income communities. When one landlord is getting $1,500, the landlord next door may well seek to evict the tenant who has been paying $700 for years. That’s why FAC has established a Displacement Free Zone, in which tenants, neighbors, homeowners and religious leaders fight the evictions of long-time residents facing doubling rents.

To be fair, East Harlem has an unusually high percentage of publicly owned or regulated low-income housing. Hope can build middle-income housing and still have a predominantly low-income community for many years to come. But for many of our communities, if we want current residents to benefit – and not be displaced – we need to work for new public policies: stronger rent regulations to protect existing tenants and incentives like our proposed “Community Stability Tax Credit,” for small landlords who rent below market. We need genuine models of “mixed-income” housing development and inclusionary zoning, instead of the “80/20” models that only produce 20 percent affordable units while increasing displacement of nearby tenants.

FAC also shares Hope’s entrepreneurial spirit. We are buying privately owned land, thinking in a more businesslike way about our assets and starting for-profit businesses. As the market has rediscovered our community, we have to discover the market. But we can do so in ways that counter prevailing market inequalities, by creating market-sensitive job-training programs that lead to living-wage jobs and buying land for the affordable housing we produce. Otherwise, why not let a private developer do it alone and save our resources for the next project?

Our next housing development in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn is both mixed-income and entrepreneurial, but offers far more affordable units than an “80/20” project. Mixed-income development is appropriate for Red Hook because of the high cost of acquisition, and because the vast majority of residents live in public housing; many have been clamoring for homeownership. We are developing a 60-unit, mixed-income cooperative, with 40 units set aside for very-low-income and low-to-moderate-income families. Twenty units will be market rate.

Justice, Literacy and Organizing

We are also taking our community development work in new directions. FAC has launched “Developing Justice in South Brooklyn,” which helps ex-prisoners returning to our community find jobs and housing, and reunite with family. We have come to see that our so-called “criminal justice system” is actually a community anti-development system. In neighborhoods (mostly of color) with poor schools and few opportunities, we lock people up for years for low-level drug offenses and give them little support in or after prison. As a result, they are far more likely to fail, to be unemployed and homeless, and to commit new crimes – harming themselves, their families and our community. Does this make our community safer? Of course not. One recent study suggests that some communities – so stripped of their normal ability to function – have reached a point where locking people up actually leads to a higher crime rate. We need policy that looks at criminal justice and community development together, that helps people and communities to succeed – rather than setting them up to fail.

This fall, FAC will merge with an adult literacy organization, to integrate “human development” with community development. We believe that combining long-term education and job development will give people a real chance to increase their income. Just as important, literacy is a tool toward empowerment and involvement in efforts for social change.

Finally, but perhaps most important, we maintain a strong focus on community organizing. FAC, like so many CDCs, was born from the volunteer efforts of people who wanted to make change in their community. That energy, accountability, commitment to the rights of low-income people to control their own destinies and passion for social change are still the best things about community development. It takes concerted effort to keep organizing central, to keep local residents in charge of shaping our vision for their community’s future. But it is the best way to address the “people vs. place” conundrum.

Brad Lander
Brad Lander has been a New York City Council member serving the 39th District since 2010. Lander is the former director of the Pratt Center for Community Development in New York City, and of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a CDC and organizing group.

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